Derek Newberry

The U-Curve Theory

Highlights from the Business, Engineering and Sustainability Workshop

kenan classThis past weekend, about 60 talented individuals from business schools, engineering departments, non-profits and the private sector met for what was essentially a two day brainstorming session. The goal: Discovering ways to transform (or work within?) the dominant academic culture to mainstream inter-disciplinary sustainability studies.

I could say plenty about the discussions, but I think the best description comes from one of the professors who spoke of a “U-curve theory” representing the trial and error phase sustainability education would endure before gaining mainstream acceptance.

To break it down, we start with this workshop, where faculty from across the country met out of a desire to break departmental lines in creating course curriculum, group projects and research agendas that have as a component the promotion of sustainability. Cross-departmental work makes sense – after all, environmental issues are holistic problems requiring holistic solutions that go beyond just the world of marketing, or product design, or economics.

But the territorial culture of academic institutions is rigid – boundaries are hard to cross, and those faculty that offer multi-faceted learning are seen as “watering down” their work or being non-serious. Hence what gains have been made in promoting sustainable curriculum, as far as it has come in the past decade, are inadequate – courses generally focus on short-term considerations, such as corporate social responsibility, not the long-term broader work of greening the entire product cycle or sustainable modes of consumption.

Hence the 60 enterprising individuals will return to their respective institutions looking to establish new links, create new classes with a mix of students, create collaborative business/engineering research surrounding environmental concerns. But they are likely to fail at first, and returning to the U-curve, this would be the downward slope. Members of a different disciplines explain to them, in their own separate terms, why their idea won’t work in the real world.

They hit rock-bottom, hopefully no tenure-track faculty lose their jobs. But they adapt, if it’s a group of business faculty, maybe they come up with course curriculum that satisfies rigorous engineering department requirements and still maintains a green business component. They rise back up the U-curve and plateau, having created a new norm of sustainability in academia.

At least I’m fairly certain that was the explanation – leave it to an academic conference to produce more graphs and high-minded theories like the U-curve…. I hope whichever professor thought of that doesn’t think I’m trying to take credit. But that was the gist of the conference from what I observed over a day and a half – people trying to figure out how to fight their way through the U-curve and all the obstacles they would face on the downward slope.

A lot of great ideas came out of the workshop as well; the concept of creating a new inter-disciplinary academic journal for sustainability, building online clearinghouses for “green” curriculum to add to business and engineering classes, and utilizing non-tenure faculty to work as inter-departmental liaisons were a few.

Each way forward has its own difficulties and status-quo bias to work against. Fortunately, with the support this workshop received from influential groups like the National Science Foundation, Caterpillar Inc, Cornell University and Engineers for a Sustainable World (among many others), a new paradigm of inter-disciplinary work on environmental issues may be closer than we think.